Our interview series with founders of great digital nomad events continues with one of the veterans in the field. I am happy that I had the chance to find many great insights about Refuga workations and will share with you how these events can help digital nomads and entrepreneurs grow both personally and professionally.
Nikolaj Astrup Madsen, the Refuga founder, started organizing trips for location independent professionals a few years ago as a personal experiment and ended up having one of the most well-known companies that organize niched events.
1. Tell us a few things about your background and how Refuga came to life
I’ve been an entrepreneur for over 10 years, doing a lot of different projects. Some years ago I moved to China and suddenly I felt very alone in my work life and I wanted to expand my own personal network of like-minded adventurous professionals, so I just wrote on my personal blog if anyone wanted to go to Spain for a week of work, good food and adventure. I just expected a few people and then we could rent a nice apartment or something, but it went a bit viral and within one week I had 20 participants who all had paid $1000 each to join and from there it just became a concept (this was all in Danish).
2. What was the moment you realized that this could become a business and how did you start?
Over the first two years many of the Danish participants (I started with Danish trips, and still do a lot of Danish trips) have told me that I should do more and focus on this, but for a long time I didn’t think it should be a real business. I think it’s because I’m so influenced by all of the startup talk about platforms, apps, funding etc. that my mind thought that was the right way to build a company.
When I did my first international trip, where we had participants from 10 different countries, I think that was a turning point. It was a great experience and since the group is very small and we’re in a very remote location, you really get to know people. It’s not like meeting people in a hostel or a co-working place. After that experience the first time, I just decided that I wanted to do more.
3. Who is your “typical” guest and how did you see the profile changing over the years?
Very, very difficult to answer since they vary a lot. We have had people from over 30 countries and their age was between 17 and 63. But I would say what they have in common is mindset. We almost only have busy entrepreneurs, where most of them have employees. We don’t have any digital nomads really or people building lifestyle businesses like bloggers etc. We have some freelancers, maybe around 20%.
4. Have you seen people who first met at Refuga workations and later did business together?
Absolutely. We had a Danish guy and Norwegian one who made a business together, bringing the Danish guy’s business to Norway. We also had four people team up to create a business.
We had one guy who was on a trip with nine different nationalities and now he is trying to visit everyone in their home country. I love stories like that. 🙂
5. How do people find your events or how do you find them?
Mostly via social media.
6. You have had workations in many places. What are the most important things you are looking for when organizing a co-working and co-living event?
It’s combination of 5-8 factors. It’s very difficult. We have only had workations in four locations in three years and I have looked at around 200-250 locations for each of these, so I’ve looked at around 1.000 locations over the years. It’s just extremely difficult, but I think that is really our competitive edge – or one of them.
One of the super important aspects is that the location is remote. We really, really try to build a good group atmosphere, and when it’s for such a short time, it doesn’t really work to be in cities with a lot of bars etc.
7. What are the most important things people achieve when attending a Refuga workation?
It varies a lot. We try to build some frames where people can go for different reasons. We have a lot of people who work 8-12 hours per day. I know some of the competitors have tried talking my trips a bit down as pure vacation, but we have had people working for 25 hours in a row and on our last trip one guy created a concept from scratch and got a 150.000 EUR investment while we were on the trip. So there is a lot of hard work, but we also have quite a lot of people who use the trip more strategically to take a step back from everyday work.
The goal of the trip varies from person to person. We try to make it both personally and professionally a really good investment.
8. What are some of the things you’ve learned from each event – both professionally and personally?
Another difficult question 🙂 I’ve been traveling intensively with really talented entrepreneurs from over 30 countries, so I’ve learned a lot about different cultures and different ways of doing business. I also learned a lot of hacks! It’s been a good investment for me personally to build this and I fell like I have friends and network all over the world. This summer my girlfriend and I are going to Serbia and Bulgaria to meet some of the past participants. I also got invited to speak at a conference in India with over 1200 participants because of one of the participants, so it has opened a lot of doors for me.
9. You had your first Refuga trip in 2012. How do you see the landscape of workations?
I think the whole scene will grow. I see new projects almost every week and I don’t see the market for traveling getting smaller anytime soon. 🙂
10. What are your future plans?
My challenge is having too many plans. I think a lot of positive things are going on, but I will have to take a decision on focus and direction and I’m not 100% sure yet. Until I do, I will enjoy traveling between the trips and on the trips. 🙂